So, since the beginning of chapter 8, Paul has been addressing the topic of whether believers may eat food which has been sacrificed to idols. It’s not a problem we encounter in Belfast, but I’ve explained before that it was a big problem in Corinth in those days, because, of course, there were no atheists in Corinth. There were no atheists in Corinth. Unlike today when there are many, many, many people and more all the time who claim not to believe in any god, everyone in Corinth believed in some kind of God. There were, of course, Jews and Christians who believed in the God of the Bible, although the Jews did not believe the Jesus Christ was God. Nevertheless, they still believed in the Lord God Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth.
And then there were the pagans who believed in lots of gods; and the city of Corinth was full of temples dedicated to this god and to that god. These gods, of course, were nothing. They were only idols, make of stone or wood or metal. They were not real and they did not really exist. But the pagans believed in them and worshipped them. And as part of their worship, the pagans would offer meat-sacrifices to their gods. And while some of this meat was burned up on the altar, some of it was sold in the market place. So, when Christians went down to the market to buy their groceries, the meat on sale has once been dedicated to an idol. Should Christians eat such meat? And perhaps the Christians were invited from time to time to dinner in the home of an unbelieving neighbour. The food served at their house had probably once been dedicated to an idol. Should Christians each such meat? And then, of course, public festivals and civic celebrations were very often held in a pagan temple; and on those occasions, sacrifices were offered to the gods and the meat from the sacrifice was then eaten as part of the festival. Should Christians attend such events and eat the food that is served there?
These are not questions we typically face. No one has suggested this as a topic for our discussion meetings on Sunday evenings. However, it was a question which the believers in Corinth faced. And we’ve seen that some of the believers in Corinth — if not most of them — thought there was no problem eating such food, because we know that an idol is nothing, it’s not real, it’s doesn’t really exist, and food is food. So, what’s the problem? We’ve seen too that, in addressing this topic, Paul technically agreed with them: we know there’s only one God; we know an idol is nothing; we know that food is food. However, he then cautioned them that by eating such food they may cause one of their fellow believers to stumble and fall away from Christ. You might destroy the faith of your fellow believers if they see you in the pagan temple and start to think to themselves that there’s nothing wrong with idolatry. So, for the sake of your fellow believers, give up your right to eat such food, so that you do not cause them to stumble away from Christ and from his salvation.
And then we saw how, in chapter 9, Paul wrote about his right as an apostle to receive financial support for his ministry. He had the right to receive such support. However, even though he had the right to receive such support, he did not make use of that right and was willing to preach for free so that as many people as possible might hear and believe. In the same way, even though the believers in Corinth believed they had the right to eat food sacrificed to idols, for the sake of their fellow believers they ought not to make use of that right.
And last week, when we were studying the end of chapter 9 and the beginning of chapter 10, we saw how Paul warned the believers in Corinth — who thought they were safe and secure in the faith and in no spiritual danger — to flee from idolatry. Flee from idolatry, he said, because even though you think you’re strong in your faith, be careful that you do not fall, as the Israelites did in the days of Moses who were unfaithful to the Lord and who turned away from him and who bowed down and worshipped false gods instead of worshipping the Lord true God who had delivered them from slavery in Egypt. And because they turned away from the Lord, they did not enter the Promised Land of Canaan, but their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. And Paul was saying that since they fell away from the Lord, you need to watch out — you who think you’re strong and cannot be tempted by idolatry — watch out lest you stumble and fall from Christ. And while we may not be tempted to bow down and worship idols made of stone or wood or metal, nevertheless believers in every age are often tempted to turn away from the Lord and to become unfaithful to him. We’re so often tempted to put other things before him, so that we do not love, trust or worship him the way we should. So, the lesson from this part of 1 Corinthians is to watch out lest we stumble and fall from Christ. We’re to persevere in the faith, trusting the Lord always, worshipping him alone, so that in due course we’ll come into his presence and receive the crown of life which the Lord Jesus has won for us by his death and resurrection.
So, that’s where we got to last week. Today we come to the next part of Paul’s argument. And in this part of his argument, Paul makes clear that while idols are nothing, lurking behind the idols in the pagan temples are demons. And all those who believe in the Lord Jesus should have nothing to do with demons. And to help us to understand this part of Paul’s letter, I want you to imagine a young woman who has just been married. After being involved with many other men, and after being in all kinds of bad relationships, she eventually found Mr Right who was kind and honest and faithful and loving. They fell in love and were married. And, of course, when they were married, they promised to be loving, faithful and dutiful to one another, and to take each other, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, til separated by death. They promised to forsake all others and to share all that they have with one another. That’s what they promised when they were married; and after they were married, she moved into his home and they began their married life together. However, not long after their marriage, she started to go out one night every week and stay at the house of one of her former boyfriends. She’d go and spend the night with a former boyfriend; and then come back to her husband the next day. She didn’t think there was a problem, because she said she still loved her husband and was committed to him; she said the relationship with her boyfriend didn’t really mean anything to her. There’s no harm in it, she used to say to her friends.
Well, if we heard of such a situation as this, if we came across someone who tried to live like this, we’d be shocked, wouldn’t we? That’s not what a marriage is meant to be. When a couple are married, they’re to forsake all others and be devoted to one another. They’re to love one another exclusively, aren’t they? Well, keep that picture in mind as we turn now to what Paul says in these verses, because whenever we believe in the Lord Jesus, we’re meant to forsake all others and be devoted to our Saviour who loved us and who gave up his life for us and who now shares with us everything he won for us by his death and resurrection. Think of conversion as a marriage, when we take the Lord to be our Saviour; and we receive from him one spiritual blessings after another which he shares with us. And when we’re converted to faith in Christ, we make a decision that from now on I will love, trust and worship you alone as my God and Saviour. I will worship you and no one else. So keep that in mind as we go through these verses.
Verses 14 to 17
So, in verse 14 Paul writes to the believers in Corinth to flee from idolatry. Have nothing to do with it, but run away from it, so that you will not stumble as the Israelites did and fall away from the Lord.
And Paul goes on to address his readers as sensible people, or as reasonable people. In other words, he’s sure that if they give it enough thought, they’ll see that what he’s saying makes sense. So, he asks:
Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ?
He’s referring to the cup or the drink we take when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. It’s a cup of thanksgiving, or ‘a cup of blessing’ — as other English translations put it — because when we take it, we give thanks to God for it. Think of when the Lord instituted the Lord’s Supper: it says that after he took the cup, he gave thanks. And so, when we take the cup in the communion service, we give thanks to God for it and for what it means. And Paul describes the cup of thanksgiving as a ‘participation’ in the blood of Christ. He also refers to the bread that we break as part of the communion service as a ‘participation’ in the body of Christ. So, the cup is a participation in his blood which was shed when he died on the cross; and the bread is a participation in his body, which was broken when he died on the cross.
The word ‘participation’ is an interesting word. The Greek word can be translated ‘communion’ which is why we refer to the Lord’s Supper as communion. When we take part in the Lord’s Supper, we’re communioning with the Lord Jesus. But what does that mean? Well, the Greek word can also be translated by the word ‘fellowship’. Now, when we think of ‘fellowship’, we often think of it as getting together and enjoying each other’s company. In the church where Yvonne and I worshipped in Edinburgh, the minister used to announce that we’d have a time of social fellowship over a cup tea in the hall afterwards. However, in the New Testament, fellowship among believers means more than that: it’s about supporting one another and sharing what we have with one another. The early Christians used to sell some of their property and share the proceeds with their fellow believers who were in need. That’s what fellowship was in the New Testament. Well, the Greek word translated ‘participation’ in verse 16 can also be translated as ‘sharing’. And that’s perhaps the best way to think about what Paul is saying here. When he calls the cup of thanksgiving a participation in the blood of Christ, and the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ, think of the cup and the bread as the means by which we share in the blood of Christ and in the body of Christ. When we take the cup and drink it with faith, and when we take the bread and eat it with faith we share in the blood and body of Christ. Or even better, we share in the benefits of Christ’s blood and body. When Christ’s blood was shed for us and when his body was broken for us, he obtained for us various spiritual benefits which he shares with us and with all who believe in him.
So, what benefits do we receive from Christ’s blood, shed for us on the cross and from his body, broken for us on the cross? Well, our church’s Shorter Catechism helps us here, because after explaining that we share in the benefits of Christ’s redemption through faith, the Catechism goes on to explain what the benefits are. And those benefits include: justification so that our sins are pardoned and we’re accepted as righteous in God’s sight; and adoption so that we’re adopted into God’s family and he now treats us as his children, not his enemies; and sanctification so that he works in us to make us more and more willing and able to do his will and to obey him. And then there’s assurance of God’s love; and peace of conscience; and joy in the Holy Spirit; and progress in holiness; and perseverance. And then, when we die, our souls are made perfect and pass into glory. And then, when Christ comes again, our bodies will be raised in glory and reunited with our souls and we’ll be acquitted at the judgment and brought in to live with God for ever in body and in soul. Those are the benefits which Christ purchased for us by his death and resurrection and which we receive by faith.
Now, we receive justification and adoption the moment we first believe in the Saviour. So, as soon as we believe, we’re justified and adopted. And then we have to wait for our death before our souls will be glorified; and we have to wait for Christ’s return before our bodies will be glorified. So, we have to wait for those benefits. However, we receive the rest of Christ’s benefits — sanctification; assurance of God’s love; peace of conscience; joy in the Holy Spirit; progress in holiness; and perseverance — whenever we receive the cup of thanksgiving with faith and whenever we receive the bread that we break with faith. Now, we don’t receive those benefits in a purely physical way; they don’t come to us through the mouth as if eating the bread and drinking from the cup without faith could help us. No, we receive the benefits of Christ’s blood and body, or we share in the benefits of his blood and body, by eating with faith and by trusting in Jesus Christ as the only Saviour of the world and as the only Redeemer of God’s people.
In other words, when we meet around the Lord’s Table for communion, God is at work. Some Christians believe the cup and bread are symbols only to remind us of what Christ has done for us. But Presbyterians and Reformed Christians believe that the cup and bread do more than merely remind us of what Christ did. We believe that when we drink from the cup with faith and when we eat the bread with faith, God is at work in us by his Spirit to give us the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection. So, when we receive the Lord’s Supper with faith, Christ gives us and we share in the benefits of his death and resurrection.
In other words, when we meet together for worship on Sundays, God is at work in us. He works in us when we listen with faith to the reading and preaching of his word; and he works in us when we receive with faith the Lord’s Supper. God is at work in us when we meet for worship, so that when we meet for worship, something happens in us, so long as we take part in the worship with faith, trusting in God to use his word and his sacraments to help us.
And in verse 17, Paul says that because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of — or share in — the one loaf. Paul is saying to us here that when we gather around the Lord’s Table, we share together the one loaf of bread. And by sharing the one loaf of bread we become one body, one people, united together in Christ.
Now, here’s an interesting thing to ponder. When I came to Immanuel, I learned that your practice here for communion is to eat the bread whenever you receive it, but to hold on to the cup until everyone is served, so that we can drink it together. By drinking it together we symbolise our unity in Christ. Immanuel is not the only church which does this. However, from Paul’s words here, we learn that the unity of the church is not symbolised by drinking together, but by eating from the same loaf of bread. And so, perhaps it’s time for us to think again about the practice of drinking together, because the Lord has not commanded us to do it and according to God’s word, our unity in Christ is symbolised not by drinking at the same time, but by eating from the same loaf. So, perhaps it’s time for us to think again about that practice. And it’s a reminder too that the church can often develop customs and practices which seem entirely reasonable, but which are in fact without biblical warrant.
Verses 18 to 22
However, let’s move on to verses 18 to 22 where it becomes clear why Paul has been writing about the Lord’s Supper. First of all, he mentions the practice of the Israelites, the Jewish people, who offered sacrifices to God at the altar in the tabernacle and the temple. And he says that they participated in the altar. In other words, by eating the sacrifice, they were in communion and fellowship with the Lord whose altar it was; and they shared in all the benefits of the altar. The point of this verse is to make clear to us that it is a universal principle that when we worship, we are in communion with and we share with whatever we’re worshipping. This is true of Christians who worship in churches; and this is true of the Jews who worship at the temple in Jerusalem. And that means it’s also true of those who worship idols in their pagan temples. Those who worship idols are in communion with and they share with the idols they’re worshipping.
Now Paul goes on in verse 19 to make clear that the idols in Corinth are nothing. Idols are nothing; they’re not really gods. They’re only images, made of stone and wood and metal. They’re nothing. However, Paul adds in verse 20, the sacrifices offered to idols are really offered to demons. So, lurking behind the idols which are nothing are demons which are real. The sacrifices which are offered to idols are offered to demons. And I don’t want you to become participants with demons, Paul says in verse 20. I don’t want you to have communion and fellowship with demons. So, whenever you receive the Lord’s Supper, you’re participating in Christ; you’re communioning with him and you’re in fellowship with him. Whenever the Israelites offered sacrifices to God, they were participating in God at his altar; they were communioning with him and they were in fellowship with him. And whenever pagans offer sacrifices to idols, they’re participating in those demons; they’re communioning with demons and they’re in fellowship with devils. And I don’t want you believers to communion or to have fellowship with demons. You’re not to have anything to do with them.
And Paul is very clear in verse 21: you cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too. You cannot have a part in the Lord’s Table and a part in the table of demons. You cannot do it. You must not do it. It isn’t right. Taking part in the Lord’s Supper means you’re united to Christ in a bond of love and fellowship. And it would not be right for anyone who is in a bond of love and fellowship with the Lord to unite himself or herself with demons as well. You cannot do it. And so, Paul asks in verse 22:
Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy?
And that’s why I began this sermon by describing the woman who was married to her husband, but who used to go and spend the night with her former boyfriends. When those who profess faith in the Lord go and worship idols, they’re being unfaithful to the Lord. Just as that woman left her husband and went back to her former boyfriends, the unfaithful believer is leaving the Lord Jesus and going back to his former gods, gods which he promised to forsake whenever he first trusted in Christ. Whenever we put our faith in Christ, we’re united to him in a bond of love which is meant to be permanent and exclusive. And so, to worship other gods is an act of unfaithfulness and it’s spiritual adultery.
Just as a man and woman will promise to forsake all others, so the believer is to forsake all other gods and idols and anything else which might come between the believer and the Lord. Once I trusted in this god and that god; but now I forsake those things and I will trust you alone. Once I loved this god and that god with all my heart; but now I forsake those other things and I will love you most of all.
And just as a man and woman will promise to love one another until separated by death, so the believer is to love and trust the Lord always. For the rest of my life, I will be devoted to you, my Lord and my God.
And just as a man and women will share what they have with one another, so the Lord Jesus promises to share all that he has with us. And so, when we come to the Lord’s Table with faith, he shares with us all the benefits of his death and resurrection, so that he gives us the sanctification we need to obey him; and assurance of God’s love; and peace of conscience; and joy in the Holy Spirit; and growth in grace; and perseverance. We need these things so that we will grow in the faith and persevere in it; and he’s willing to share these things with us and to give them to us when we gather at his Table. But it would be wrong to have fellowship with him at his Table, and to receive from him all his good gifts, and then to run off, behind his back, and to give our love to something else and to trust in someone else apart from him. It would be wrong.
But that’s what the believers in Corinth were doing. The believers in Corinth thought they could safely worship the Lord and also take part in the worship of idols. They thought taking part in the worship of idols would not affect their relationship to the Lord in any way. And so, Paul needed to warn them that behind the idols are demons who will draw you away from Christ. And Paul needed to warn them that by worshipping demons, they would provoke the Lord to jealousy, because he wants his people to love him above all other things. And so, flee from idolatry and love the Lord with all of your heart and remain committed to him exclusively and forever.
And so, the lesson for us today is that we too must love the Lord with all of our heart and we must watch out lest we turn away from him and set our love and affection and our trust in other things. The Devil will do what he can to lead us astray. So, do you remember the Lord’s parable of the sower and the seed? Some of the seed fell on thorns and did not last. And do you remember? The thorns stood for the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth and the desire for other things. The Devil distracts us with the worries of this life and instead of trusting in the Lord, we trust in other things to help us. And the Devil distracts us with wealth and instead of loving the Lord, we love our money and the things it can buy. And the Devil distracts us with other things, so that instead of desiring to know the Lord and to do his will, we desire other things instead. Think of Judas who betrayed the Lord Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. Because he loved money, he gave up the Saviour. Think of Demas, one of Paul’s fellow-workers, but who deserted Paul because he loved this present world more than he loved the Lord. The Devil comes at us with one temptation after another, because he wants to lead us away from Christ our Saviour, who loved us and who gave up his life for us. And so, we need to watch out lest we stumble and fall. We need to watch out, because just as a woman cannot be married to a man and go after other lovers, so we cannot love the Lord with a divided heart.
And just one final thing to say this evening: when we come to church for worship, come with faith and expectation, because the Lord has promised to work through the reading and preaching of his word and through the sacraments to give us what we need to follow him. When a couple are married, they share what they have with one another. And whenever we’re united with Christ through faith, he shares what he has with us; and he’s prepared to give us one spiritual blessing after another to help us to walk in his ways. And so, come with faith and expectation, trusting the Lord to keep his word and to give you what you need.